May 8th, 2012
08:42 AM ET
By Sally Holland, CNN
Washington (CNN) - Georgetown University holds ten official commencements and 18 other awards ceremonies every spring, but on Friday, when the Catholic school announced its 2012 speakers, one drew immediate criticism from a group of conservative Catholics.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a member of President Obama's cabinet, is set to speak at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute's awards event.
"Secretary Sebelius was chosen by our GPPI students to bring her message of congratulations as they begin their careers in public service and public policy," the school said in a statement. "As an academic community, Georgetown regularly hosts a variety of high profile speakers."
In a letter from the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative advocacy group for Catholic teachings in higher education, society President Patrick Reilly requested that Georgetown President John DeGioia withdraw the invitation to the HHS secretary.
"The selection is especially insulting to faithful Catholics and their bishops, who are engaged in the fight for religious liberty and against abortion," the letter said.
The objections stem from the Obama administration's mandate that all organizations, including those based in faith, pay for health insurance that covers contraception. The Catholic Church teaches that contraception and abortion are morally wrong.
On Monday, Georgetown spokeswoman Rachel Pugh sent an e-mail to the Cardinal Newman Society clarifying that Sebelius will not be giving a commencement address.
"She is speaking at Georgetown Public Policy Institute's annual student and faculty awards event," Pugh said.
"The point is that they are publicly recognizing someone who has made herself an enemy of the church's religious freedom," said Reilly. "(Sebelius) is also a pro-choice Catholic."
"As a state legislator, insurance commissioner, governor and now cabinet secretary, Secretary Sebelius’ message will be about honoring the achievements of these students who are devoting their careers to public policy," according to HHS spokesman Keith Maley.
The Cardinal Newman Society posted a petition on its website on Friday requesting that Georgetown pull back the invitation to Sebelius. The petition has received over 12,500 electronic signatures, according to Reilly.
This isn't the first time the issue of women's reproductive rights has come up with a speaker at a Catholic university in the U.S. In 2009, Obama drew criticism when he spoke at the commencement ceremony at the University of Notre Dame, where he addressed the abortion debate.
"Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction," the president told the Fighting Irish graduates. "But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."
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